Based on the James O. Barr graphic novel of the same name, “The Crow” feature film adaptation directed by Alex Proyas arrived in theaters in 1994 following the tragic death of its star, Brandon Lee, during filming. Three actors from the film gathered on a panel at the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo to discuss the film’s legacy twenty years after its release.
Ernie Hudson, who played Sergeant Albrecht, represented the good guys; Michael Massee (Funboy) and Tony Todd (Grange) the bad guys. The stars discussed their work, how the filming process changed following the accident that took Lee’s life as well as “The Crow’s” impact over the years.
Moderator Eric Sellin established some basic groundrules before the panel began. Sellin noted that Massee was the actor who fired the prop gun that malfunctioned and killed Lee on the set, and while he was willing to talk about the incident, questions and comments would have to be respectful and not “dickhead questions like, ‘what’s it feel like to kill somebody?'”
The large and enthusiastic crowd remained respectful throughout, hanging on every word from the actors. Although Lee’s death forms the background for nearly every discussion of the film, questions and the actors’ banter allowed the tragedy to remain as exactly that — background and context for a work that continues to resonate decades after it graced the silver screen.
The dedication of star Brandon Lee, a “great script” according to Tony Todd, the vision of director Alex Proyas, and the talented ensemble cast all worked together to create something special. “It’s such a collaborative medium that it’s not about one actor or one director — the director has to have the helm of the thing, and know what he’s doing, but besides that it’s everybody’s input, and everybody’s so important in the making of a movie and sometimes when it comes together it comes together really well, and sometimes it’s disastrous,” Massee said.
According to Hudson, Lee’s accidental death focused the production. “After the accident happened and we went back to work, Alex in my opinion just took control,” he said. “The movie is what it is because of his dedication, his determination to make it really special.”
Massee said it was Proyas’ vision that initially drew him to the project. “Why would I want to go to North Carolina to do this movie? Not that I was going to turn it down. But I ‘d look at [Proyas’] reel, and I’d say, that’s why. It was so beautiful, the work that he did and it was very, very unusual at the time. It really — you had the feel that you never know what you’re making. You work just as hard for something that’s terrible as work for something that’s good. But this movie really seemed like it had the hope to be something really special and different.”
Hudson shared the sentiment. “Alex Proyas, who directed the movie, is an amazing director. And I saw his reel before I agreed to do the movie and he’s just very talented and very — just a great guy,” Hudson said.
The star of the film, Brandon Lee, was another reason for the movie’s success. “It was great people. I mean I loved the amazing cast. Everybody really fit their roles, their parts,” explained Hudson. “Brandon was really dedicated to the work. I always find that it starts with the leader. When [a film’s star is] really committed, he’s really good, he’s showing up. You’ve gotta show up. So it was great to be a part of.”
The conditions, however, were another question. Nearly all the filming was done at night according. “It was North Carolina, it was winter, it would be warm during the daytime but it would be freezing at night and we were working at night — so it was very difficult,” said Hudson. “When I got down there, we’d been shooting for about three days and I was like, ‘where are the heaters man? We need heaters.’ Brandon’s walking around with no shirt on, no shoes on and he’s wet and I was like, ‘wait a minute, why?’ He didn’t want to complain. So it was a little bit careless in my opinion.”
Although none of the panelists came out and said it, the grueling schedule may have contributed to the Lee accident. “Yeah, I think — the studio was putting a lot of pressure,” said Hudson. “I think the studio — Paramount was the studio — was putting a lot of pressure on him [Proyas] to hurry up and finish it. We were pushing the envelope.”
“We were working about 17 hours a day,” said Todd. “Hollywood has now cut back on that particular timeframe because there’s way too many hours” being required by studios, he said. “After our incident on ‘The Crow,’ laws were passed particularly in the state of California that you only work 15 hours a day — it makes for better [work],” he explained. “There’s no need to rush through anything in life — childbirth, making love…”
“For many, many hours you would wake up and you would never see the daylight,” said Massee. “You would go to sleep when the sun comes up and go to work when it’s dark again. And it just gets you turned around and you’re sort of in sort of a jet lag sort of state the whole time. And it’s a weird state to work in for many months.”
Despite the difficulty and tragedy in making the movie, an iconic and trendsetting film eventually emerged — one that inspired and informed dozens of movies that followed. “Any movie that’s cutting edge, people after that take and get inspired from the look of it or the feel of a movie or something like that and take it and do their own version of it, said Massee. “I do think it was a trendsetter in that way.”
Though he regards “The Crow” in such a positive light, Massee told the audience he has never seen it and rarely watches his own work. “It makes me want to throw up,” the actor said. Asked to name a favorite scene, he said, “I couldn’t really tell you, for obvious reasons. When I see the movie I’ll tell you.”
That said, Massee did remember one iconic scene, when three of the crew that murdered Lee’s character and his fiance, sat around a table shouting and raising hell. “That was all ad libbed,” Massee said. “And throwing the bullet up and catching it my mouth, I was damn proud of that piece.
“That whole scene pretty much around that table was ad libbed,” he continued. “The ‘fire it up,’ David [Patrick] Kelly came up with that, he’s from Detroit, so someone told me it had something to do with Detroit, which I didn’t know what it had to do with Detroit, but he came up with it and I followed his lead. That whole scene just seemed to come about while we were around that table.”
The conversation inevitably turned to sequels, though not the generally panned sequels and television show that followed the original “Crow” in the late ’90s and early 2000s. A new “The Crow” movie has been in the works, but according to Todd, “was supposed to start in January has been sidelined a bit. James O. Barr who wrote the original graphic novel is the key executive producer on that. He talked to me about something, not necessarily doing Grange… [but] it doesn’t matter because it’s in limbo right now.”
“I was surprised that they talked to Tony because I thought I killed him in the movie,” deadpanned Hudson.
Todd joked about his frequent on screen deaths, often it seems at the hands of Hudson. Both actors starred as voice talent in the animated “Transformers Prime,” on which Todd’s character, Dreadwing, was also killed.
“That’s right you did die,” said Hudson. “I forgot you died in that.”
“How could a robot die? That’s what I want to know,” asked Todd.
“Well, you cast Tony Todd,” explained Hudson to roars of laughter.
Another of the groundrules set by Sellin at the beginning of the panel was not to ask Hudson about the status of “Ghostbusters 3,” and whether the actor would reprise his role as Winston Zeddemore. Halfway through the panel a fan appeared ready to defy Sellin, asking, “Speaking of sequels, Ernie, I think what everyone wants to know is… will there be a ‘Congo 2?'” The audience and the panelists all erupted into fits of laughter.
“I don’t often get surprised by questions, but you got me on that one,” replied Hudson. “No, I don’t think there will be another ‘Congo.’ I don’t know why, I loved the character. I thought they should get rid of all those other people and make it about Monroe Kelly — I loved making the movie and I wish there would be but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Sellin offered the fan a “free autograph with all three of them because that’s a great question.”
Being in Chicago, it was impossible for a panel including Tony Todd to stay away from seminal horror film “Candyman,” set and filmed in the infamous Cabrini Green housing project just north of downtown Chicago. “Working on ‘Candyman’ in Chicago was probably the — I absolutely love this city, this city is so funky,” said Todd. “Its funky, the people are so cool. Chicago’s a great city for filming. The city is so rich architecturally. I think that’s part of what made ‘Candyman’ special.”
Hudson said that at one point he also considered working on “Candyman.” “I read the script, and I thought it was the stupidest scripts I had ever read. This is so dumb,” said Hudson. “And then I saw Tony make this movie something really magical, and I was like, ‘wow, it that just shows what actors can do.’ I never thought I’d be having a conversation about ‘Candyman,’ but it was amazing, amazing work. I appreciate you.”
Massee talked about his work on “The Amazing Spider-Man.” “My agent actually called me — I was in downtown LA — and said, ‘They want you for a part in Spider-Man, do you want to do it?’ And my question was, ‘is it a big movie?'” Massee recalled of the experience. “‘Yeah, I’d love to do it.’ They told me I’d be in the first one, sort of in the shadows, man in the shadows. If they didn’t like my work they could cut me out of 2 and 3, and that was somewhat the idea. Anyway, they did like my work, and in the second one they were going to expand the character, which they did, and in the 3rd one I should be one of the villains with Chris Cooper [who plays Norman Osborn].”
He also spoke of his work with acclaimed director David Lynch on “Lost Highway.” “I read ‘Lost Highway,’ and I went to see this casting director who cast all of Lynch’s stuff and she said, ‘would you like to meet David tomorrow?’ The next day came, and I walked into the room, and David was there.” Massee told Lynch, “I read your script, and I read a lot of scripts, and this is one of the best things I have read in the last couple of years. It’s just, it’s fantastic, it’s like a dream that you almost have and you wake up and you don’t have and you try to grasp onto it,” Massee smiled as he paused for effect. “And I didn’t understand a fucking thing.” Lynch smiled and said, “good, good,” casting Massee in the film’s last open role.
“That’s how I felt about and how I still feel about the movie the same way,” said Massee. “I don’t understand a fucking thing.”
Todd talked about his influences and where they led him. “I am a student. I love film noir, so Billy Wilder is like my favorite director of all time,” Todd said. “‘Sunset Boulevard’ is my favorite film.”
Independent films like ‘Sushi Girl’ allow Todd to explore his cinematic passions. “I loved [working on ‘Sushi Girl],” the actor said. “I got to produce it. I called Ernie — he wasn’t available. Or at least he didn’t answer my call… We all do mainstream things, big budget things, it pays for our kids’ education and our lifestyle, and it also gives us the freedom to pick and choose other roles. I’m getting ready to do another independent film that I’m producing called ‘Cowboy’s Girl.’ This is a beautiful story about a young woman coming to terms with her dad — you get to choose movies with heart and passion and soul.”
Todd has another personal project in development, this one about a relatively unknown Black actor named James Edwards. “[Edwards] is an unknown black actor who was supposed to be what Sydney Poitier became, but he got blacklisted because he had a habit of dating white women. He was in a film called ‘Asphalt Jungle.’ A very small role, he’s done like 20 roles — he’s a forgotten treasure.”